Updated July 2021
Therapeutic and athletic taping are the practice of applying tape to a person’s skin to protect injured structures, influence pain, or improve function and movement.
There are a number of reasons to tape and many proposed effects of taping. To keep it simple, tape is typically used for one of the following three reasons:
1) Stabilizing Joints with Tape
Joint stability depends on passive and active structures. Passive structures include ligaments and the bones involved in the joint. Bony stability is provided by the size, shape, and arrangement of the joint surfaces. Muscles, tendons and the nervous system comprise the active structures.
Injury to bone often results in a fracture, for which taping is not appropriate. Taping can be used to support and unload injured ligaments, muscles or tendons, thus setting an optimal stage for healing.
Tape must resist stretch to provide support and stabilization. Athletic tape (white zinc oxide) is most commonly used and its nonelastic property helps it limit joint movement and transfer force through the skin instead of through an injured structure. Unfortunately, even the most rigid tapes eventually stretch. Taping may only provide stability for a few hours of activity, which is why many athletes reapply tape midway through a game or practice.
2) Reducing Load with Tape
Pain can occur before or during an acute (sudden) injury but it can also arise gradually as we do repetitive activities. Taping can be an effective way to change the force applied to our bodies by repetitive activity and provide temporary reduction or relief from pain.
For example, patellofemoral pain (PFP) can be caused by excessive prolonged tension on the medial patellofemoral ligament (MPFL). Gliding the patella (knee cap) medially (toward the other knee) and holding it there with tape can reduce the tension in the MPFL and thus reduce the amount of pain experienced during activity. Nonelastic tape must be used for this technique as the tape needs to be strong enough to stop the patella from gliding laterally (away from the opposite knee). Leukotape is commonly used with Hypafix or Cover-Roll underneath as a hypoallergenic layer.
Leukotape can also be applied to elevate the scapula (shoulder blade) and take tension of the brachial plexus following a nerve traction injury. In this example, tape is applied from the posterior deltoid across the spinous process under tension with a second untensioned piece from the spinous process to the opposite shoulder.
Of course, while taping can temporarily relieve symptoms, the only long lasting treatment involves movement retraining, strengthening and altering the activities that overload our bodies in the first place. If you have pain with repetitive activity, book an appointment with one of our physiotherapists today to assess your mechanics and create a plan for recovery!
3) Altering Muscle Tone and Posture with Tape
Postural tension and movement dysfunction can cause both discomfort and limitations during activity. Tape has recently been used to influence posture by providing sensory input to the skin, which in turn can cause the body to alter muscle tone. This same mechanism is thought to be at play when tape is applied and a movement is carried out.
Elastic tape is ideal for the purpose of providing sensory input to the skin during prolonged postures or activity because it is comfortable and has some ability to stretch as we move. If you’ve seen an athlete decked out in colourful tape, chances are they’re wearing Kinesiotape (K-tape) or Rock Tape and they’re using the tape to increase sensory input, improve joint proprioception and ultimately influence athletic performance.
Keep in mind, elastic tape does not mechanically maintain posture or joint position and thus doesn’t provide stability. If it’s stability you’re after, check out point #1 above and consider Leukotape or Athletic Tape instead of K-Tape or Rock Tape.
Book an appointment at Royal City Physio to find out if taping can improve your recovery!
Basset K.T., Lingman S.A., & Ellis R.F. (2010). The use and treatment efficacy kinaesthetic taping for musculoskeletal conditions: a systematic review. New Zealand Journal of Physiotherapy 2010, 38(2), 56-62.
Stephen Baker graduated from Western University with a Masters of Physical Therapy. He has a passion for helping those with neck, hand or knee injuries return to their daily adventures. Book with Stephen today.